In classic Washington finger-pointing style, the Democratic primary is only barely over but the recriminations are already being teed up.
The main thrust of them is this: Will supporters of Sen. Barack Obama blame Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if Obama loses in November?
While the point might eventually prove moot, her decision to remain in the race well past the point in which Obama appeared to have an insurmountable delegate lead has nevertheless generated discussion about what responsibility, if any, she might bear in the event of an Obama loss.
“If the Democrats don’t win the White House back this fall there will be a hard core contingent of young Obama supporters who will be extremely disappointed,” said Alexandra Acker, executive director of the Young Democrats of America. “They will be looking for someone to blame and some may look to the long primary.”
Democratic strategists, elected officials and political analysts interviewed by Politico agreed that any debate that surfaces over her culpability will be colored by how hard Clinton works to heal the rift between now and Election Day.
“Attitudes about Sen. Clinton among Obama supporters will be shaped almost entirely by her attitude, effort, and success in bringing the party together over the next several months,” said Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant, in an email interview.
“[The question is] does Sen. Clinton go through the motions or does she go all out?” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. “That is easily seen by the voters and the party leaders.”
Hart noted that the tone of the Democratic National Convention will also determine the course of the blame game.
“No one blames John Kerry’s loss on his opponents,” said Hart. “But many of the [Jimmy] Carter folks blame Ted Kennedy for the effect of the 1980 convention.”
Strategists close to the Clintons express confidence that they will work hard for Obama.
“The Clintons are politically astute and it’s in their interest to do everything they can to support Obama,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House and supported Hillary Clinton in the campaign.
Yet even if Hillary Clinton goes to great lengths to ensure Obama’s election, there’s no guarantee she’ll emerge unscathed from an Obama loss.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that fingers will be pointed,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
“Obama supporters will blame Hillary. … Hillary supporters will say 'I told you so,'” said pollster Scott Rasmussen in an e-mail.
Most Democrats, however, express confidence that once the general election begins in earnest, voters will become too absorbed in it to reflect back on the primary.
“The nature of this race is going to change almost overnight,” said Mike Feldman, a Democratic strategist who worked for Al Gore and was unaligned in this primary. “I don’t think that people are going to be looking back at the primary.”
“I think the mindset will shift very quickly to Obama-McCain,” said Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama.
If there is an epidemic of finger-pointing in November, say some Democrats, it’s likely to take root among Obama’s most devoted constituencies — young voters and African-Americans.
But Davis said that whatever resentment African-Americans may feel toward the Clintons at the moment will be quickly overshadowed by the harsher attacks Obama will face in the general election.
“If anyone thinks the Clintons ran a divisive campaign, they haven’t seen what the Republicans will do this fall,” said Davis.
Obama’s young fans, said Acker, will be watchng his reaction closely.
“I think young people will take their cues from the Obama campaign,” she said. “Sen. Obama will have a lot of power to encourage his young supporters to maintain their enthusiasm.”